Marxist Criminology Research Paper

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Despite the fact that Marx did not address crime in a systematic way, criminologists have used Marxist theory to analyze laws, crime, and the criminal justice system. Over the past 40 years, Marxist criminology has become a core component of what has been broadly referred to as critical criminology. Many critical criminologists have contributed to the development of Marxist criminology, and its position within the field of critical criminology is well established. At the same time, the insights provided by Marxist criminological theory have received little interest among mainstream criminologists, despite the fact that some share with Marxist criminologists a macrolevel or structural approach to studying crime. While recent developments in Marxist criminological theory have slowed, Marxist criminologists are still able to provide a viable framework to understand law, crime, and state responses to crime.

Marx And Crime

The works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Antonio Gramsci, Emma Goldman, Willem Bonger, and a host of others who have stood on their shoulders provide what the philosopher of science T.S. Kuhn aptly named a “paradigm.” A paradigm is a general theoretical perspective composed of concepts, hypotheses, and perspectives from which political, economic, and social relations can be analyzed, explained, and understood. The Marxian paradigm, which serves as a foundation for a corpus of knowledge in the social sciences generally, and criminology in particular, is thus a very general perspective from which specific (although sometimes conflicting) theories are developed. With such a large fountain of ideas, it is not surprising that no one “Marxist theory” can claim an exclusive interpretation.

Despite the fact that there are a wide variety of “Marxist theories,” there are two fundamental characteristics of Marxist theories that tie them all together and differentiate Marxist theory from other paradigms. First is the belief that the material conditions of a particular time and place – not norms or values of culture – are the starting point for an analysis of why political, economic, and social relations have the shape and texture they do. Second is the assumption that social theory generally, and criminological theory in particular, is best served by approaching the subject from a structural perspective.

The structural perspective is of course not unique to Marxist theory. Emile Durkheim argued, in his classic text Suicide, that individual explanations of suicide were impossible to come by, but explanations of why suicide rates varied according to social structural characteristics were not only possible but also scientifically defensible. Durkheim, however, did not see the importance of material conditions in determining suicide rates (social class is never mentioned in the entire book). On the contrary, Durkheim based his analysis on the importance of norms, specifically normative integration, a paradigm that has dominated criminological theory ever since.

The Marxian paradigm stressing material conditions has influenced many theoretical paradigms in criminology, albeit often rather tentatively. Edwin Sutherland’s essentially psychological theory of the cause of crime explained individual criminality by the degree of association an individual had with “attitudes favorable or unfavorable to the commission of crime.” The implicit assumption was that people from the lower classes (thus material conditions) were more likely to have associations with attitudes favorable to the commission of crime. The theory was, however, basically normative in that it was attitudes and norms that were the deciding factors in the etiology of criminal behavior.

Robert Merton’s strain theory is likewise a combination of Marxist materialism and Durkheimian emphasis on norms. The “strain” in Merton’s theory derives from the location of groups or individuals in the social structure relative to their access to legitimate means for achieving culturally prescribed goals. It is not material conditions per se; it is material conditions as they relate to cultural norms (goals and means) that provide the impetus for crime.

Sutherland and Merton exemplify the tendency of criminological theory to emphasize the importance of norms and to give passing reference to the fact that material conditions (in particular social class) may contribute to the learning of social norms (Sutherland) or the experience of social strain (Merton).

Herein lies the most fundamental difference, then, between the Marxist paradigm and that of other criminological theories. The Marxist paradigm, with few exceptions, does not seek to explain why individuals commit crime (for exceptions, see Bonger, 1916; Colvin and Pauly, 1983) but seeks to explain why different types of crime are situated where they are in the social structure and why different economic systems (e.g., capitalism and socialism) produce different types and rates of crime. The starting point for Marxist theory is not the norms, values, and culture of the historical period. For Marxist theory the starting point for explaining any social phenomenon lies in the material conditions and the social structure of a particular historical period.

Social Order And Crime

Since Marxist criminologists look to social order when explaining crime and societal responses to it, they begin with an analysis of the existing social arrangements. For Marxist criminologists, the laws that define behaviors as crimes emerge from the existing social order. In this view, social order comes before the laws that define behaviors as crimes (Michalowski 1985). This is very different from mainstream criminological theory that assumes crime creates the need for laws, which then in turn produce social order (Michalowski 1985).

Marxist criminologists have argued that political economy is dynamic and develops in stages over time. Thus, the particular form of capitalism may change depending on historical social and political developments. For example, the emergence of the welfare state changed many capitalist economies in that politicians decided to add (or strengthen) social safety nets, such as unemployment benefits and welfare for the poor. Marxists have argued that the development of the welfare state was necessary to stem the tide of class conflict that arose from growing class inequality and labor unrest. Marxists have argued that because capitalist economies contain inherent contradictions, they must constantly undergo change to address the problems created by them.

In many cases, the state intervenes to dampen the effects of particular social problems created by these contradictions. However, these attempts to dampen the effects of structural contradictions create new dilemmas which then must be resolved, thus continuing the process of reproducing capitalism Chambliss (1993).

Marxist criminologists have been careful to note that some capitalist systems are more likely to be criminogenic than others. For instance, some capitalist societies have stronger social safety nets that reduce inequality and provide basic necessities like health care to its members (e.g., Western European capitalism as opposed to the capitalism found in the United States). Capitalist countries that provide stronger social safety nets also produce different cultural values that are less likely to promote the welfare of the individual over that of the community.

Beginning the analysis of crime from a structural, material paradigm leads to different theories than does beginning from an individualistic, normative paradigm. The structural-materialist paradigm also generates very different questions.

For example, criminological theory generally assumes what the Marxist paradigm seeks to explain: Why are acts defined as criminal? Why are some people more likely to be labeled and punished than others? What effect does the classifying of some acts as crimes have on economic, political, and social relations? How does the classification of acts and people as criminals serve to perpetuate and maintain the class structure of the society (be in capitalist, socialist, or feudal)? What interests are served by the particular criminal law system in effect at different times and places?

The Development Of Marxist Criminology

Neither Marx nor his writing partner, Friedrich Engels, developed a systematic theory of crime. Rather, Marx chose to focus his attention on analyzing capitalism as one stage in the larger history of economic development. While Marx was very critical of the negative aspects of early industrial capitalism, such as the exploitation of the working class by industrialists, he also viewed capitalism as a necessary stage of development that would create the technology and industrial capacity to lay the foundation for a more just society based on mutual benefit, rather than the exploitation of one class (workers) by another (owners). Crime, for Marx, was a social problem like any other in capitalist societies.

Marx believed that capitalism is an inherently unstable system that is prone to crises. For example, capitalism needs competition between business owners, since without it, monopolies emerge that control markets and prices. However, as one company becomes powerful, it can eliminate competition by buying up competitors, or simply crushing them with vast resources (e.g., a large retailer, because of enormous purchasing power, is often able to sell its products at a much lower price than small retailers). Eventually, the state has to step in to prevent this type of monopoly capitalism, passing antitrust and other laws. Thus, Marx viewed each crisis in capitalism as the result of some underlying contradiction in the system. As contradictions give rise to crises, someone (usually the state) must intervene to save the capitalist system from its own destructive tendencies.

Subsequent Marxist theorists have argued when public policies and social institutions are created to resolve one dilemma arising from an inherent contradiction in the system, another one emerges. Because capitalist economies are crisis prone, they undergo stages of growth and decline, leading to boom cycles characterized by economic growth and prosperity, as well as bust cycles characterized by a lack of economic growth, high unemployment, and increased poverty. These cycles influence both crime and societal responses to it. As changes are made to the system to reduce the problems created by one dilemma, new problems emerge that must be dealt with.

One of the first scholars to apply Marx’s theories to crime was the German criminologist Willem Bonger. Bonger (1916) argued in his book Criminality and Economic Conditions that crime in capitalist societies arose from egoism (self-interest). Bonger (1916) viewed capitalism as an economic system that tended to bring out the most egoistic, and least altruistic, tendencies in people. Bonger (1916) was careful to argue that egoism does not, in itself, cause people to become criminal. Rather, he argued that certain environments make people more capable of crime. Related to the egoistic tendencies of capitalism, Bonger (1916) also claimed that the capitalistic economic system of exchange, that encourages people to act primarily out of self-interest, weakens social bonds. In such systems, the interests of the individual are not balanced with the interests of the collective and create an environment of intense competition and individualism. Much crime, then, occurs because the social bonds that tie the interests of people together are weakened in favor of an ethos of individualism and self-interest.

Another important and early development in Marxist criminology was Punishment and Social Structure, by George Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer (1939). Rusche and Kirchheimer (1939) continued advancing a Marxist analysis of crime in their study of punishment. They argued that capitalist systems create forms of punishment that correspond to their productive systems and that large pools of surplus labor in the market are likely to lead to more severe penal policies (i.e., large pools of unemployed people are more likely to result in longer prison sentences).

The 1970s saw the emergence of a sustained interest in Marxist theory and crime by critical criminologists. One of the most significant attempts to develop a Marxian framework for studying crime was The New Criminology, by Taylor et al. (1973). Giving primacy to a structural approach to understanding crime, Taylor et al. (1973) challenged criminologists to avoid reductionist explanations of crime that focused on individual causes of crime while providing a strong case for developing a theory of crime that located its causes within the existing political economy.

Structuralist And Instrumentalist Marxists

Early attempts to develop Marxist criminology saw debates emerge between scholars who had differing views on the role of the state in making laws and resolving crises within the capitalist system. On one hand, those such as Quinney (1974) argued that the purpose of laws and the criminal justice system was to maintain the class interests of the powerful. In this view, the state has little autonomy from the ruling class, and laws are instruments used to advance their interests. Others, such as Greenberg (1981) and Chambliss (1993), argued that the primary purpose of the state is to preserve the system itself. Greenberg (1981) made a compelling case that the ruling class is not as cohesive as Quinney and other instrumentalists had argued, and Chambliss (1993) advanced a comprehensive analysis of contradictions, showing that at times, the state passes laws that do not directly favor the ruling class, but are nonetheless intended to stem the negative consequences of a particular crisis in the system.

While the instrumentalist perspective provided a useful starting point to analyze the role of the ruling class in law making, today most Marxist criminologists reject this view. While it is true that the interests of the ruling class are often promoted in the social policies of the state, most Marxists view the overarching goal of the law, and the law making process, as a means to preserve the capitalist system.

Who Are The Criminals?

One of the important contributions of Marxist criminology has been the ways in which it has expanded the study of crimes to include crimes of the powerful. Many early attempts to develop Marxist criminological theory focused on crimes committed by the lower classes (e.g., Bonger 1916; Rusche and Kirchheimer 1939). While the early Marxists studied street crimes within the broader context of political economy, other Marxist criminologists later turned their attention to the study of corporate, state, and statecorporate crimes (e.g., Michalowski and Kramer 2006).

Since Marxist criminologists believe that the origin of all crime can be found in the political economy, it may be tempting to view crime and other social problems arising from the inherent contradictions of capitalism as necessary and positive features that will eventually cause capitalism to collapse. The danger in this view is that street crime can become romanticized, either as a symptom of system crisis necessary for collapse or as some type of rebellion against the system. In this latter case, criminals are viewed as forces resisting capitalist domination.

As left realists and other Marxist criminologists have warned, this view of crime is counterproductive. If criminologists have learned anything over the past 100 years, it is that most victims of street crime are very similar, demographically, to those engaging in crime. Thus, poor minorities living in urban areas are likely to be victimized by other poor minorities living in their neighborhoods. Many left realists have pointed out that the most harmful effects of street crime are not realized by the ruling class – which in many cases can insulate itself from street crime – but by other members of society that are exploited by the system. In the view of left realists and many Marxist criminologists, there is nothing romantic or revolutionary about street crime.

The fact that many Marxist criminologists have examined the crimes of the powerful, combined with the fact that they do not view street crime as revolutionary, does not mean that they have ignored it (see Carlson and Michalowski 1997). In fact, Marxist criminologists have studied all different kinds of crime, from crimes on the street to crimes in the suites.

Crime In The Streets

When explaining traditional forms of street crime, Marxists look to the ways in which economic conditions foster crime. For example, some areas have much higher levels of crime than others, and a Marxist explanation for those differences would begin with an analysis of how factors like poverty, persistent unemployment, and other “structures of disadvantage” play important roles in creating a criminogenic environment in these areas (Taylor 1999).

Since capitalist systems are dynamic, the amount and type of crime may vary from one period to the next and from one country to the next. For example, some capitalist economies have relatively high unemployment rates but lower levels of serious poverty because of public assistance programs (e.g., many countries in Western Europe). Other countries, such as the United States, have persistent unemployment and poverty, with fewer public dollars spent on social welfare. In addition, these structural differences give rise to significant differences in cultural values. For example, the egoism that Bonger (1916) identified differs from one culture to the next. In the United States, serious “structures of disadvantage” are coupled with an ethos of individualism, egoism, and extreme competition for scarce resources. In many urban areas in the United States, it is common to see highly concentrated poverty and unemployment, with little or no opportunity for success in the formal economy. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find underground economies in these areas, where drugs and other illegal goods and services are exchanged.

Crime In The Suites

While the social costs of street crime are significant, the costs of corporate crime are even higher. From a Marxist perspective, the crimes of the powerful are just as important as street crimes and have the same genesis in the political economy.

If capitalism reduces the altruistic tendencies of people and increases their competitiveness, the same is even more so for corporations, since their very survival depends on competition and making as much profit as possible. For corporations, making a profit trumps all other considerations. One of the clearest ways in which this can be seen is in the harm that is caused when corporations circumvent regulatory laws in order to maximize profits. Michalowski and Kramer’s (2006) anthology documents many cases where corporate crimes were committed because regulatory laws were either circumvented or simply not enforced by governmental agencies.

Profiting From Crime

The social responses to crime in the United States have resulted in the highest per capita imprisonment rate (750 per 100,000) of any advanced industrial nation (Cowling 2008). With only 5 % of the world’s population, the United States imprisons 25 % of the world’s prisoners (Herivel and Wright 2007).

Carlson et al. (2010) have argued that the roots of this problem can be found in the economic crisis of the 1980s. During the 1980s, many areas in the United States underwent deindustrialization, where manufacturers moved their plants overseas, in large part to save money on labor and regulation. Deindustrialization caused unemployment to rise dramatically in many industrial cities and devastated local communities. In many areas, drug markets emerged, followed by violent crime. Politicians of all stripes endorsed “get tough on crime” policies, resulting in mandatory sentencing, longer sentences, and exploding prison populations.

Furthermore, Carlson et al. (2010) argued that the net effect of the “get tough on crime” policies that emerged from the economic crisis of the 1980s resulted in increasing numbers of people from the surplus population being incarcerated. In addition, they noted that more money has been spent on the criminal justice system itself, increasing amounts of which have been channeled to private corporations that either run prisons or provide key services for them.

Politics And Crime

Marxist criminologists have long argued that politicians have profited from crime in using “get tough on crime” platforms to win elections. Beginning with the “war on crime” that began in the 1960s, there has been a successive line of presidents and politicians who have advanced policies leading to increased incarceration rates as well as increased spending on all aspects of the criminal justice system.

For example, Chambliss (2001) noted that increased expenditures for the criminal justice system compete directly with other important expenditures such as education, programs for the poor, and other social services. While not Marxist in orientation, Jonathan Simon’s (2007) Governing Through Crime extends Chambliss’ (2001) earlier work by arguing that the focus on crime has become so normative that hardly anyone questions the ways in which crime control policies have radically changed American institutions. While states have been quick to cut funding for education during tough times, they have been slow to cut expenditures on criminal justice – even when crime rates are falling.

Mass Incarceration

Criminologists have noted that one of the most obvious results of the various “wars on crime” that have been waged over the past 50 years is the enormous increase in the prison population in the United States. Poor, young, urban, minority men have disproportionately been incarcerated, leading to startling inequalities in incarceration rates between whites and other minority groups. As Western (2006) has shown, young African-American males are six to eight times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. This alarming trend has been termed “mass incarceration.”

Young minority males have been systematically excluded from economic opportunities, experiencing unemployment rates and poverty rates far higher than whites. Confined to the poorest urban neighborhoods, many minority males have not had access to well-paying manufacturing jobs that disappeared during the wave of deindustrialization during the 1980s. Excluded from the legitimate economy, many of these young men have turned to the underground economy.

Rather than addressing the underlying economic realities of urban areas and their structural problems, politicians have decided to become more punitive, passing a series of “get tough on crime” bills. Aside from incarcerating large numbers of poor, minority males, these policies have resulted in strained budgets and cuts in other essential programs like education and public assistance to the poor.

From a Marxist perspective, mass incarceration is not only a matter of crime and politics but also indicative of larger economic trends. Carlson et al. (2010) have argued that the current trend of imprisonment stems from repressive policies, not necessarily linked to increased crime. For example, mass incarceration serves to reduce the surplus labor force while simultaneously increasing spending in the criminal justice system, employing more people, and increasing the need for goods and services (Carlson et al. 2010). As Carlson et al. (2010) noted, this “imprisonment binge” has “served capital accumulation indirectly by restraining large segments of the surplus population from posing public problems in the form of crime, and directly by serving as a vehicle for private profit realization” (p. 256).

Social Structures Of Accumulation And The Neoliberal Project

From a Marxist perspective, the periods of growth and decay in capitalism repeat themselves because of the inherent contradictions within the system itself. Some stages of capitalism have been characterized by economic growth and relative prosperity (i.e., the years after WWII). Other periods, like the Great Depression during the 1930s, were characterized by severe problems such as mass unemployment and deep poverty. Because capitalism is crisis prone, no period of growth lasts forever. Eventually, a crisis emerges that forces a new stage of capitalist development.

Each stage of capitalist development, however, relies on institutional structures to support it. In some cases, this means that institutional structures undergo significant change to support capital accumulation. In other instances, social institutions are intentionally weakened to promote capital accumulation (e.g., deregulating the financial sector that leads to the most recent economic crisis). Social Structures of Accumulation (SSA) theory, which has its roots in Marxist theory, views important social institutions – such as the criminal justice system – as playing vital roles in undergirding any sociohistoric stage of capitalist development.

For over 30 years, neoliberal politicians have sought to weaken the welfare state and the social institutions and structures that have been created to support it. While the philosophical roots of this movement have been around for a long time, the period of economic stagnation of the 1970s created a political opportunity to advance neoliberal economic theory. In the early years, champions of neoliberalism such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sought to wage a war on government itself, characterizing it as the enemy of economic prosperity and personal freedom. Other important components of the neoliberal project have included efforts to reduce taxes (particularly for the rich), the deregulation of business and industry, transferring collective risk to individuals, the decline in labor rights and the power of unions, the promotion of privatization, and perpetual budget crises caused by reducing taxes while increasing spending (see Harvey 2010). The most radical version of neoliberal politics can be seen in the tea party movement in the United States, with its extreme forms of privatization, anti-tax, and antigovernment rhetoric.

The neoliberal movement has brought with it repressive policies of increased social control that have filtered through many social institutions, most notably the criminal justice system. Carlson et al. (2010) have argued that the criminal justice system, while not a core social institution, plays a significant role in the accumulation of capital by controlling crime and civil disorder and thereby creating a good investment climate. In addition, the growth of mass incarceration has kept significant numbers of the “surplus population” of young men behind bars (Carlson et al. 2010).

From a Marxist perspective, neoliberalism has been a significant force that has given rise to the increasing privatization of prisons, resulting in “prisons for profit.” Private sector prisons, like other businesses, are not run for the collective good. Rather, the goal for privately owned prisons is to make a profit. Critics of the neoliberal project have noted that private prisons transfer public money to private stakeholders, shifting the (ostensible) purpose of prisons from protecting the public to making money (Herival and Wright 2007).

On the other end of the class spectrum, some have argued that neoliberalism has resulted in the deregulation and the weakening of regulatory agencies that were created to prevent various forms of corporate crime. In this sense, the neoliberal project has created many opportunities for corporations to engage in criminal activity, such as the financial fraud that lead to the meltdown of the housing market.

The overarching ideology of the neoliberal movement has been that invisible market forces are better at controlling the behavior of people and institutions than laws or regulations. As an extreme form of Bonger’s (1916) egoism, the ideology of market forces has entered nearly every facet of human relations, resulting in the radical change of traditional forms of social control such as community norms and other social institutions, like the family and education. As Currie (2004) noted, this trend has resulted in an extreme version of social Darwinism that can be seen throughout contemporary social institutions, ranging from “sink or swim” families where adolescents are left to fend for themselves to the draconian zero tolerance policies found in schools.

The net result of neoliberalism has been an enormous transfer of wealth from the bottom of the class structure to a very small group at the top, against the backdrop of various “wars” (i.e., crime, drugs, terrorism) that have, in many significant ways, undermined democratic institutions and processes. To paraphrase Reiman and Leighton (2010), during the neoliberal era, the rich have gotten much richer, while the poor have gotten prison.

In a very paradoxical way, however, the current politics of crime do not fit with the neoliberal trend of shifting collective risk from the collective to the individual. When it comes to crime, neoliberals are very supportive of strong government intervention to provide collective security. Yet, as Simon (2007) has noted, very few politicians have questioned the fact that “neither contemporary liberal nor conservative principles extol the kind of penal state and gated civil society we are building by governing through crime.” From a Marxist perspective, such paradoxical views can only be understood as ideology, the purpose of which is not to promote some principle like individualism but is rather an attempt to promote the particular interests of the ruling class (preserving a system of capital accumulation) by extolling the virtues of collective risk in one situation (crime) while ignoring them in another (e.g., attempts to privatize social programs like social security).

The Future Of Marxist Criminology

The most recent and comprehensive overview of Marxist criminology is Cowling’s (2008) Marxism and Criminological Theory: A Critique and a Toolkit. Cowling (2008) argued that Marxist criminology can be advanced by further refining its analysis of the ways in which capitalism reproduces itself, including both the roles that criminal justice institutions and laws play in this process. Given the recent crisis of the global capitalist system following the housing market collapse, Marxist scholars find themselves with ample opportunity to study the ways in which states attempt to respond to the inherent contradictions within capitalism and in doing so provide insight to significant social problems like class inequality and crime.

The current crisis of capitalism provides several potential areas of inquiry for Marxist criminologists. For example, Marxist criminologists might examine the enormous impact of the financialization of the US economy over the past 30 years and the ways in which the exponential growth in the financial sector has led to the current economic crisis. There is little doubt that the neoliberal policies that emerged in the 1980s eventually lead to the deregulation of the banking and finance industry, creating the opportunity for banking and finance to take tremendous risks in order to increase profits. The rewards of these risks were privatized, but as the subsequent collapse showed, the costs were socialized – in the form of a $700 billion taxpayer bailout. Given the tremendous cost and harm created by the banking industry, why is it that there has not yet been a single prosecution? In addition, a Marxist analysis could provide insight to the fact that very little legislation has been passed to curb the practices of the banking and finance industries.

Marxist criminologists can also benefit from the good analysis that is currently being provided by both general Marxist theorists and other critical criminologists. For example, few Marxist criminologists have carefully examined the ways in which current Marxist theorizing can be applied to crime (c.f., Carlson et al. 2010; Carlson and Michalowski 1997). These theoretical insights could easily be applied to the work that has been done by mainstream criminologists. Take, for example, mass incarceration that has continued, unabated, for over 10 years. The great paradox of mass incarceration is that incarceration rates have steadily increased, while crime rates have decreased. Clearly, there is amble room for Marxist criminologists to contribute to the understanding of mass incarceration by providing a structural explanation that is grounded in political economy.

Also, Marxist criminologist would do well to address the criticisms leveled at Marxist criminology by other critical criminologists who have been critical of the fact that Marxist criminologists have been slow to adequately address important issues like gender and race.

Finally, while there have been several varieties of Marxist criminology over the years, and the amount of scholarship in the area has waned in recent years, Marxist criminology still provides a useful, macro-level approach to understanding the problem of crime. As long as capitalism and the social problems like crime that it generates exist, Marxist criminology will continue to be relevant.


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